Let's start with the obvious: "Church basement" and "good museum design" do not normally go together. I speak from experience, having worked
for a year in a church basement populated by peace organizations. Narrow hallways, cement walls, ragged door frames. Not what I personally would think is the stuff meant to transport people into another time and place.
Well, a visit this weekend to Detroit's "Underground Railroad Living Museum" has shown me otherwise. The museum is located in the basement of the First Congregational Church (which, incidentally, has got a beautiful sanctuary with an organ that I'll bet shakes the floor when played). Small groups of people -- I went through with a school group -- watch a short video history of the Underground Railroad, get a brief overview of the church's history, and then descend into the basement where they assume the role of escaped slaves. (We were given wristbands that said "slave" on them.) Our conductor, Simon, was a large man dressed in a torn hat and long, tattered clothes and using a walking stick. The only didactic element in the basement was at the very beginning, when Simon talked about and showed illustrations depicting the Middle Passage, mostly for the benefit of schoolchildren, who I suspect are the primary audience. (Little shout out here to a fantastic database on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.) From there, we passed through "the door of no return," (signifying the exit point from Africa for many captive Africans during the slave trade), and found ourselves on our Louisiana plantation, Oak Alley.
The scenes that followed all took place at night -- to represent how fugitive slaves often traveled in the dark, and to create a mood of peril and uncertainty. Conveniently, this also meant that all the modern touches of the church basement were obscured! From a design perspective, then, the darkness served the museum. As we moved from room to room and scene to scene, we met various characters. In an early and especially gripping scene, an elderly slave woman took us into her quarters and told us of the dangers ahead and urged us to stick together in our travels. Shortly afterward, as we left the plantation, another old-timer yelled us out of his quarters, saying that we were foolish to attempt an escape. Then, already en route, a pregnant woman came running up to us screaming, pleading with us to let her join us -- would we? After traversing a good distance, a Quaker woman hustled us into her safe house, only to urge us on when a loud banging on the door portended an evil fate for us all. We traveled on, going over some treacherous terrain, and at last arrived at the Ohio River -- a large open room with a dip in the floor that was cleverly converted into a waterway with the use of some floor paint and lighting. Once we passed the bridge, we were free, and back upstairs.
Mercifully, the video we'd watched had communicated much of the basic information about the Underground Railroad, and the basement portion of the tour was not overloaded with facts and figures: it was more concerned with experience. I was impressed by how simple touches -- well-placed blue-gel lights, props hiding a fuse box or other machinery, the sound of crickets, just a lantern lighting each scene, dark cloth on the walls and passageways to shroud us, and props like a whipping post or river rats -- all created a rich atmosphere. With Simon "conducting" us slaves ("passengers" or "packages" in the language of the day), some of the central challenges of escape were dramatized: to stay with the slavery you knew, or to risk it in the unknown wilds; whether to have others join you or to deny them for fear they'd be endangering the group; how to judge whom you can trust, and how far? These dimly lit scenes and this cast of actors were well calibrated to engage the imagination -- not so underdone as to leave visitors confused, nor so overdone as to leave us no room to think. (The physical museum is nicely complemented by an online component, right here.)
The picture above is of (I think) the museum's first cast of actors, and comes from this page on the museum's website. The museum was the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Lottie Jones-Hood, the first African American pastor of the Detroit congregation, and the first woman. The previous location of First Congregational Church of Detroit is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the Congregational Church denomination was historically involved in the abolition movement.